I hope you’ve all been enjoying the beautiful weather of late. Not that I’m ever one to complain about the sun but we are now desperate for some rain to soften the ground up, especially now we have got all our haylage wrapped! The good weather also seems to have brought on a plague of horseflies, so if anyone has a brilliant remedy for keeping them away, please let me know.
It was wonderful to open up the pages of Horse & Hound to see a lovely photo and write up of Standing Ovation and Gillian Portus’ recent dressage win. “Stanley” came to me as a four-year-old after he had given Gillian a few scares. I’m sure she won’t mind me saying he was a bit of a tricky character! Stanley is just my type of horse, very elegant and athletic, but he was carrying a lot of tension when ridden. He had learnt to release this by bucking and in Gillian’s words “when I was riding him he felt like he dare not take a breath. It was like sitting on a ticking time bomb!”
As fate would have it, Gillian’s mother-in-law saw me demonstrate at the South West Christmas Equine Fair in Exeter one year and they decided to send him to me to see if I could work through his issues. Going through the usual groundwork checks, I could tell he had some good training, but he was very nervous and tense, which intensified when I went to ride him. In short he hadn’t completely accepted being ridden.
My plan with him was that once I had got him safe and had established control, I would give him a period of long rides where he could unwind, get tired and mentally switch off. After a few of these sessions I felt he had started to really accept me riding him and I was able to start to asking him to work with some collection, rhythm and balance in and out of the arena.
Phase three was to empower Gillian with some techniques and exercises that she could use if she felt Stanley becoming tense. He stayed for about five weeks and I pop up to visit Gillian every now and again for a top-up session. I’m delighted with the progress they have made together and the results they are getting. It hasn’t been easy for Gillian, but it demonstrates the importance of getting the basics right before you can go on to realise a horse’s full potential.
The Big Project
Although it is beneficial in the long run, it can be very demoralising to go right back to the beginning to solve behavioural or ridden issues, particularly when your horse is already competing at a good level.
I mentioned in my last blog a stunning horse that I have started working with, that I have termed ‘the Big Project!’ (pictured top and right). As I have got to know him, I have realised he is what I describe as an ‘introvert’. He carries a lot of tension, but to cope with it he braces himself and ‘freezes’ before exploding; not fun with a 17.2hh powerhouse! He also uses his strength on the ground, taking off with his handlers and pulling back from fences.
I have just been working with him on the ground so far, teaching him to move his feet in a controlled way when he feels under pressure and to realise that he is safe when he stays with me. He is definitely a challenge, but I am really hopeful that he will be able to get back competing and fulfil his enormous potential.
Staying with competition horses, I am doing an evening demonstration (with wine and nibbles of course!) with dressage trainer, Damian Hallam, at the end of the month. We will be working with horses at different stages of their ridden careers, showing how the fundamental movements are developed and refined as the horses go through their training.
Then in August I am doing another coffee morning in association with Retraining of Racehorses working with some thoroughbreds just starting out in their new careers.
I enjoy doing demonstrations, but they don’t always go according to plan. The first one I ever did was for some local Pony Clubs. Towards the end I hopped on my little mare who was fresh off the plane from Australia to show off with a little bit of polocrosse. She promptly bucked me off as I leant down to pick a ball up, providing a great deal of entertainment for the kids and a good lesson for me to never get complacent in front of an audience!